The Journal

Who is for some Distant Reading?

Close text analysis is the primary weapon in your arsenal as a literature student, a skill which has be developed and finally tuned throughout your academic career. Until I encountered Franco Moretti’s distant reading, I was fully convinced that close reading should be the primary methodology used by academics when analysing literary texts.

However in Moretti’s article he proposes that students should swap their books and close reading methodologies for computerised graphs and statics charts. Moretti argues students would be able to unearth aspects such as how often a word appears in the text which could help them understand the genre of a text. On my first reading I was not convinced by his argument nor was I in any hurry to forget I had ever encountered critical textual analysis.

Initially I was completely dismissive of Moretti’s argument because I couldn’t comprehend how academics could refer to themselves as experts or specialists in a genre or an era of literature, if they don’t read or close read literary works. As proposed by Moretti, their expert status within a literary era or field would be acquired by feeding a literary text into a computer and constructing a graph instead of a textual analysis. Personally I feel in order to discuss a text in detail I would have had to read the text from the first page to the last. Rachel Cordasco argues against Moretti’s concept in which she states that ‘books are not data’, an argument which at first I was inclined to agree with.

When I encountered Moretti’s distant reading I had two key issues with his concept. The first issue is illustrated by Kathryn Schulz diagram of Hamlet in Moretti’s distant reading concept.

data

Schulz’s diagram of Hamlet visually demonstrates how Moretti’s distant reading can work as a methodology for analysing literary works. However, looking at the diagram I am left with question if you hadn’t read Hamlet how would you could be aware of the link between Horatio and Fortinbras? You would understand that they are linked in some fashion but you wouldn’t know how they were linked without reading the play.

Moretti’s dismissiveness of close reading is another issue I encountered while analysing distant reading, he presents a clear cut argument of calling for close reading to be dropped all together in favour of distant reading.

Despite my issues with DR, after discussing Moretti’s ideas in seminars and with my fellow peers I am gradually starting to see the benefits of distant reading and how it could support my academic research. I will continue to use close critical reading as my primary methodology and use distant reading to complement and support my critical textual analysis.

Distant reading is a key methodology for academics who are working to particular deadlines with short timelines because it will provide a large amount of information in a short space of time. In contrast close textual analysis provides academics with a small amount of in depth detail over a longer period of time. This is why both methodologies should be used in conjunction with the other in order for the student to showcase their research and close critical reading skills.

Books are not data. Books are not just words on a page. Books can be both in the form of digital humanities.

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